The Truth Detective by Tim Harford

Reviewed by Antonella Townsend

Search Your Feelings

Darth Vader

Children get all the best books and now recently published: Tim Harford’s The Truth Detective: How to Make Sense of a World That Doesn’t Add Up.  This is a fun, fact filled, brilliantly explained book, enhanced by Ollie Mann’s illustrations in splashes of colour.

The introduction situates its young readers in a confusing world full of heroes and villains, and warns even the cleverest people can be fooled.   Darth Vader is the first truth detective hero providing young readers with some sage advice – Search Your Feelings.  This must be kept in mind when following the ten simple rules of being a Truth Detective, along with the tricks, tactics and tools required, namely – using data, or numbers, but not complicated maths, just well organised numbers; a thoughtful imagination, willing to look beyond the obvious; and, the right attitude.

Harford starts with Mindset, and here Darth Vader’s advice becomes important in the case of the Cottingley Fairies, even Arthur Conan Doyle was led astray.  Young readers will enjoy this true account of how Sherlock Holmes’ author would have benefited by heeding Darth Vader (had Darth been around at the time).  So important to check sources, watch for bias and understand the Brain Guard, an interesting concept for how we accept, or not, new information.  Then readers learn how important it is to point the magnifying glass of the mind in the right direction in the case of the pricey pasta and Lego Galaxy Explorer, explaining how inflation is calculated, often incorrectly, and who suffers the most.  Quite eye-opening for this reader.  But there’s a time to put the magnifying glass down to trust your own experience, watching out for the emotional Brain Guard taking a wrong path.  Here Harford details the wonderful Muhammad Yunus helping poverty-stricken women thrive. And another Truth Detective Hero, Hans Roslin statistician and doctor, who solved the mysterious cause of disease in Mozambique.  How to seek the truth with statistics, what traps to look for, such as how to handle the correlation clue and the causal fork.  So many heroes, but now a villain.  Darrell Huff, How to Lie with Statistics, although a book full of ideas and wise advice, apparently, he accepted money from the cigarette industry to cast doubt on the truth that cigarettes were very dangerous for the health of millions of people. A true villain.

Other chapters deal with seeing but also observing, again Sherlock plays a part; asking what’s missing and the case of the prophetic poop (cow’s poop – fascinating); making the right comparisons – Landmark Numbers, and the clever idea of the Fifty-Year Newspaper.

Starting a revolution with a pie chart, how Florence Nightingale was so much more than a nurse. The Brain Guard pops up here again, how not to be fooled by a graph.  ‘Help build the statistical radar’ is a most interesting chapter that brings readers to the most recent Covid event and how it was handled via statistics; but the heroes here are not government agencies but three Australian teenagers who designed and ran website @covidbaseau.  Inspiring story how a data crisis was fixed.  This chapter also details The Death Ray, the wonderful work of Skip Wilkins and Robert Watson Watt during the Second World War and the development of real radar.

The last chapter inspires readers to be curious, not just seeing a personal one-sided view.  Harford relates his time with the American comedian Stephen Colbert (The Colbert Report), and how Colbert stimulated curiosity in his viewers and explained how politicians fund campaigns.  This chapter finishes by reiterating the points on how to be a Truth Detective and on a positive note:

The world is an amazing place.  It is full of puzzling cases. And as a Truth Detective, you get to explore every mystery…. It’s also that along the way, you’re never bored.

 Highly recommended!

The Truth Detective: How to Make Sense of a World That Doesn’t Add Up

by Tim Harford

Illustrated by Ollie Mann


Hachette Children’s Group


ISBN: 978 152636 457 9

$34.99; 191pp

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